The End of Western Civilization as We Know It (cont’d)

This is now the sixth post in my extended reflection on how the free economy poses important challenges for American higher education. Thus far I’ve written a lot about the academic aspects of what free means for those of us in post-secondary education, so today I want to turn to the economic aspects of the argument.

How could it possibly work for an institution like George Mason University–a mass market university with almost no endowment–to give away as much as one-third of its undergraduate degree for free?

In his article (that is the precursor to a book), Chris Anderson of Wired offers a “taxonomy of free” that higher education needs to take very seriously. Among the examples he cites are: “freemium” where users of the basic version of a website or service get it free, but for a fee they get access to premium services; the advertising model where websites carry advertising, whether banners or Google search links; cross-subsidies, where the free stuff entices you to buy more expensive stuff; the zero marginal cost model, where inexpensively stored and delivered items (think music files) are given away as a vehicle for marketing other goods and services (like concerts in the case of music); labor exchange, where the web user does something online in order to help a company build something else entirely (directory assistance queries helping to build databases of consumer information); and the gift economy where web users share things with one another for free without any expectation of compensation (think Wikipedia).

Of these, the “freemium”, cross-subsidy, and zero marginal cost models seem the most relevant to higher education. In the scenario that I’ve laid out in previous postings on this topic, here is how I see these models working:

Freemium: A student enrolls, paying a one time enrollment fee to cover the cost of admitting, setting up an account in the registrar’s office, obtaining a campus email account and web access, etc. This fee would be pretty low relative to current educational costs–say $500. Then our student has the right to test out of as much of the general education curriculum (up to the maximum 40 credits) as he wishes. The university provides access to lots of free educational content (lectures, learning modules, podcasts, etc.) to help the student prepare for these exams. If, however, the student needs “live help” that’s not free. So, for instance, an appointment with the writing center costs $20, or an hour with a math tutor costs $50, and so on. Anderson cites as the best example of how the freemium model works, and since more than 2 billion photographs have been uploaded to Flickr since the site went live, I’d say their model seems to work fairly well.

One could argue that the way I’ve just laid out the freemium model will advantage students with more money–they’ll be able to pay for the premium services, while less prosperous students won’t. This assumes that financial aid is not available in such a model–and I think it would be–and it assumes that there are only a limited number of opportunities to test out of portions of the general education curriculum. With financial aid and with multiple opportunities to pass a qualifying exam, less prosperous students would have plenty of access to the upper levels of the university curriculum (which wouldn’t be free).

Cross-Subsidy: The cross-subsidy model is really essential to what I’m thinking about here. Being able to obtain one-third of your college degree for free seems like a real enticement to enroll at a mass market university like GMU. Students who take advantage of our free general education curriculum are, I submit, highly likely to stay with us for the last two-thirds of their degree. Thus, recruitment and retention costs, both of which are significant portions of our administrative overhead, go down.

Zero Marginal Cost: Delivery of learning content online (especially when a lot of that content has been aggregated from elsewhere) has a very low (but not zero) marginal cost for universities. Our bandwidth costs are low relative to the market and we’ve already built out pretty robust networks. Giving students access to this learning content for free just doesn’t cost us all that much. And where we do incur costs, that’s where the premium service model and cross-subsidy models kick in.

Why no advertising? I’m not opposed to the idea that my university will advertise on its websites–we already do, especially for events on campus that cost money to attend. For me it’s a purely aesthetic objection–I hate coming to websites with advertising. If we could do something much less intrusive (think the ads on Facebook), I’d be okay with that. But banner advertising (think Yahoo!) would just bother me too much. But that’s just me.

This post brings me to the end of what I wanted to say (for now) about the importance of the emerging free economy for higher education. I’d really like to hear from you on this. Am I crazy? Will this never work? Am I on to something here?

11 thoughts on “The End of Western Civilization as We Know It (cont’d)

  1. Sage

    Mills, I’ve been eagerly following this series of posts, waiting for you to explain how this could actually work economically.

    A couple thoughts:

    Obviously, the Freemium model creates incentive for students to avoid the premium services whenever possible… services like writing centers that are often already available for free and yet are underutilized. To make it work, it would be necessary (be an opportunity?) to drastically increase expectations for content/skill mastery. The kind of paper that gets a B+ at Yale would have to be about a D, to give students the incentive to pay for services (i.e., feedback and critique over a semester) that they are getting as part of the package (not free, but not a choice) right now.

    The other side of that coin is the effect such raised expectations would have on the cross-subsidy model. Paying for two years of basic coursework (even if a student is just barely getting by) is already a strong incentive not to drop out (and thereby forfeit the large tuition investment). Raising expectations while making the investment incremental will mean that low-performing students will be even more likely drop out before reaching the upper division curriculum. Maybe this system could improve the culture of the undergraduate experience, so that raised expectations and increased personal responsibility mean that students who previously would have coasted through the general ed curriculum would now put in more effort and reach credit 41 more capable and eager to continue. But if not, it could actually have the opposite effect (a cross-tax?).

    Finally, this model means fewer professor-hours spent teaching gen-ed courses… and therefore less need for professors. I’m not necessarily opposed to improving the system in ways that shrink the academic job market (though I do hope to find a job when I finish grad school), but it’s bound to cause an outcry among those that are.

    For all that, I’d like to see it attempted. I suspect that the result would be something like a “race to the bottom” that would mean budget cuts throughout higher education, but that would also mean cheaper college for students.

  2. Tellhistory

    I followed this and your earlier (2006) series “The Future of the Course” with great interest. I like what you propose as an option for many students. In some ways, we are coming close to this already. In Dayton, we have an excellent local low-cost option, Sinclair Community College offers both distance and face2face courses. Sinclair is very affordable for residents of Montgomery County, Ohio. Among their offerings have been courses wrapped around freely available resources like the television series like “Eyes on the Prize” (in their library collections and in public libraries). The credits are inexpensive rather than free but the costs are likely be comparable to what you have outlined. The state has emphasized that credit hours for general education courses in particular must be transferable from the community colleges to the state universities like Wright State University where I teach. Undoubtedly some institutions will gravitate to the ideas that you have presented and state universities will be compelled (sounds harsh but there will not be a choice here) to accept the non-traditional credits that students transfer.

    I have some questions.

    Why wouldn’t more and more university students begin at two-year colleges and other institutions that offer these options rather than more students being caught in the state university’s wide certification-based gen-ed net?

    Elizabeth Barkley’s course (linked in “The Future of the Course”) offered the a la carte learning options as an alternative to the face2face course that was still available to students. It seems like the face2face learning would no longer be cost effective, eliminating some wonderful, well-integrated face2face courses? While we were likely the exceptions, many of us in academe are here now because we were good at learning from traditional lectures and some of us were inspired by professors in our general education courses. (My thanks go to history professor Dwight Smith at Miami University.) While flexible alternatives like you propose will serve many students well, would the more traditional learning opportunities be gone outside of liberal arts colleges?

    I’m not convinced this is actually so inexpensive? The amount of time that faculty would spend advising students (5 times per quarter), responding to student work, facilitating study groups, and grading seems like it would be equivalent to actually teaching those courses. If faculty don’t do this “guide on the side” type advising and it is relegated to others, it seems like both students and faculty will miss out on the relationships that we build with students early in their academic careers and that help students progress. I read an instructional design book a couple years back that seemed to suggest that faculty themselves are obstacles to effective instruction and that course design would be better left in the hands of designers. Would this approach take us in the direction of more designers and advisors and less involvement by faculty with entering undergraduates?

    While Western Civilization courses maybe pretty much the same, will this open the door on more commercial learning resources like the textbooks and supplements now available? Will learning resources be packaged and sold to universities like Blackboard or to students like textbooks? Although there has been some change, universities tend to prefer the standardization and support tied to these products over more free-wheeling world of open content and open source.

  3. PhDinHistory

    I have seen several professors who tell their students that they will have points deducted from their overall grade if they start missing too many classes or quizzes. What if your system was reversed and GMU billed the financial accounts of students who missed any two-week appointments with their professor/advisor, fell behind on appointments with the writing lab, failed to attend orientations with a librarian, etc.? This would potentially create an incentive for the students to maximize the time they spend on campus in places like “learning commons.” It would also give students the power to minimize the amount of money they are paying for their enrollment and allow them to retain as much of their financial aid (for food, lodging, etc.) as possible.

    What would happen to enrollments at GMU if your model was adopted? Would lower-division undergraduates across the country abandon their institutions and try to enroll in the virtually no-cost general education curriculum at GMU? Would GMU have to significantly raise its admission standards in order to prevent an explosion in the student body?

    How would financial aid regulate your model? Would their be a minimum number of credits per semester that students would have to take in order to receive Pell Grants and loans? Or would the students pursuing GE credits at GMU spread their course work over the entire school year?

  4. Derek

    I’m still mulling over the economic aspects of this proposal, but there are a couple of teaching and learning aspects that appeal to me.

    1) There’s a focus on defining and assessing learning outcomes. Too often, I think, instructors focus on content to be covered (facts, concepts, techniques) and not on learning goals to be met. For the system you propose to work well, there would have to be discussion about and agreement on the learning outcomes for the general ed curriculum as well as robust assessment mechanisms that actually measure those learning outcomes. There’s significant challenge, I think, in having faculty move from assessing students on a course-by-course basis to assessing students across an entire program (such as a major or general ed program), but clearly defined learning outcomes and meaningful assessments are very positive things.

    2) There’s a distinction between, as Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur puts it, the transmission of information and the assimilation of information. I think that too often instructors believe it their job to transmit information clearly during class (through well-organized and polished lectures, for instance) and it’s the students’ job to assimilate (understand, make sense of, apply, evaluate, etc.) that information during and after class. (With a little help during office hours, of course!) As Mazur points out, it’s the assimilation that’s the hard part, so it’s incredibly useful if the instructor can play a role in helping students with that piece. In your proposal, the transmission of information is performed via various online learning resources (instead of classroom lectures), and instructors spend their time helping students assimilate that information.

    That being said, there’s a lot of ways in which the classroom experience can be facilitated by instructors to focus on the assimilation step. I don’t know if it makes sense to give that up entirely, but perhaps the various learning communities you mentioned in your proposal can fill in this piece.

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  6. tkelly7 Post author

    I want to thank everyone who commented on my series. You’ve all given me a lot more to think about as I continue to work this idea out in my mind. I also want to respond to a couple of the points made in your comments:

    1. The role of standards: Several of the comments referred in one way or another to the issue of standards. This is both a tricky and a very important issue for higher education–tricky because standards have been so misapplied at the K-12 level and important because in higher ed we’ve gone too far the other way and have virtually no standards for our lower division courses when it comes to learning outcomes. Because any version of what I’m proposing will necessitate the careful consideration of standards on our campuses, that discussion alone will be a good outcome for any consideration of a free approach along the lines I’ve described.

    But I’d also hasten to add that there are some parameters to what I mean when I say “standards.” First of all, I think that standards for learning outcomes need to be both the result of some careful consideration of disciplinary norms and the result of individual faculty initiative. What does that mean? To me it means that academic departments need to decide what their learning standards are with some reference to disciplinary norms (if only so students could transfer from one institution to another) while allowing for significant faculty input into the process. My personal standards are different from everyone else’s which is both good and bad at the same time. There is a compromise somewhere between allowing faculty members to teach whatever the heck they want and a centralized system that mandates certain outcomes. I am completely opposed to anything that smacks of the latter. But it is also true, as several of you pointed out (and as I did in one of the posts in this series) that the vast majority of American college students begin their college career at a community college. This means that the four year institutions can’t set standards for learning in a vacuum–these standards must be set in collaboration with our colleagues at the two year institutions. Otherwise we do our students a tremendous disservice.

    2. Faculty roles: A couple of the comments also focused on faculty roles in such a new system and what it would mean for the job market, the role of individual faculty members, etc. I completely agree with Derek (and by extension Mazur) that the big problem has to do with assimilation of knowledge. For this reason, I think the model I’ve sketched out holds some exciting potential for faculty roles in the learning process. If we are freed up from having “cover” a topic with students, couldn’t we then be available for more intensive learning time with students–either in a learning commons or in our offices or out in the field somewhere? In this way, faculty members could be more learning mentors than content deliverers. On Thursday I spent 12 hours in my office in individual conferences with senior history majors about their capstone essays. Right now our curricula are set up to provide this sort of intensive contact with students at the end of their college careers. What if they could have this sort of intensive contact with professors at the beginning?

    A second issue relate to faculty roles that came up was the point about the role played by curriculum designers. Save us from such interventions from those who are not specialists in their subjects! I think that the single biggest difference between grade 12 and grade 13 is that college freshmen are (mostly) being taught by professors who have significant specialties in their content. Give me the person who has devoted a decade or more to a subject every day over the person who just knows how to design a good learning module. But, and I think this is a very important qualification, just because I have a PhD doesn’t mean I know anything about how to teach my subject effectively. But it does mean I know something about disciplinary norms (see above) and about the latest scholarship in my field. Combine that with the expertise our administration may be able to offer (consultations with a curriculum designer, for instance) and then you may end up with something powerful.

    3. External funding: I am well aware that I skipped right over the biggest problem of all for our students–how federal financial aid programs might support them in such a new model. Obviously, before anything like what I’ve suggested could be implemented, there would have to be significant buy-in from the U.S. Department of Education on the issue of student financial aid. Otherwise the entire idea is a non-starter.

    These are just the first thoughts that occur to me on a Monday morning. Thanks again to everyone who took the time to comment.

  7. Andrew

    I have a question related to the educational aspect of the “free” system.

    As part of a student’s liberal studies, he is supposed to be taught the structure of and connections between knowledge. One of the advantages of a lecture-based general ed course, like Western Civ, is that the student has a certain framework imposed upon his study. Of course, many factors influence the form of the framework, but there is structure. The student can learn both the facts and a systematic way to organize and think about them.

    I may be misunderstanding the system proposed here, but it seems like the student would be learning in a much freer, less organized way. Is it possible that this student-directed method could eliminate (or even contradict) the structure that liberal studies assume?

  8. tkelly7 Post author

    Hi Andrew:

    You raise a really good point. And I think that at smaller liberal arts institutions and smaller universities with a teaching mission, it is quite possible that something like the structure you describe is being provided to students’ learning. But at most larger universities and community colleges, that just isn’t happening any more (if it ever was).

    Instead, students take the general education course that fits their schedule of classes and work, sometimes postponing one or more of those courses until they are in their final semester of college. I’m teaching Western Civ this semester and have two final semester seniors. When I asked them why they waited until the last minute, their response was that this was the first time they could fit this particular class into their schedule (despite the fact that we offer 30+ sections of the course every semester!). Also, all rhetoric about a liberal education basis to general education to the contrary, at most of these larger institutions, each academic department teaches its particular general education course with almost no reference to the other disciplines.

    The result of this reality is that students end up with a basket of disconnected knowledge that they are supposed to try to integrate or synthesize in some way. My guess is that they find this very frustrating. And I do know from many interviews with students that they find their general education requirements to be little more than a chore imposed on them by adults who are completely disconnected from the reality of the students’ lives.

    So in what I’m proposing here, it would be possible to include a variety of integrative learning opportunities that made the interconnected nature of knowledge explicit to the students. But, it would be up to each individual campus, as it is now, to figure out how to make that happen, which means it would happen on some campuses and not on others.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  9. Andrew

    Thanks for the reply.

    I can see how larger schools could have a disadvantage. In fact, I’ve seen some of the products of “big school” general education classes recently. It hasn’t been encouraging. If the model you suggest could actually improve learning, I’m all for it.

    I wonder if one of the most important aspects of the model is actually the “entrance exams” for the more advanced classes.

  10. Derek

    @Mills: You make a very good point that integrative learning, a hallmark of a liberal arts education, is often not an intentional part of general education curricula. Some schools have courses and other learning experiences designed to help students integrate knowledge and skills across domains, but I agree that most students are left on their own to do so.

    It’s a tough task, of course. Even within a major or sequence of courses, students appear to forget what they learned in one course when they start the next course. I heard an engineering professor somewhere once say that when the engineering students leave the math building after completing the calculus sequence, it’s like all the calculus evaporates from their heads.

    The goal of fostering transfer of knowledge and skills between courses is tough enough. To ask students to integrate that knowledge, too? That’s even tougher.

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